FIGURE 3. An audience with Moctezuma: Cell 11 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 4. The tlatoque of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco: folio 2r of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 5. Battle standards of the four altepetl of Tlaxcala, from the main scene at the top of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 6. The tribute province of Cuauhnahuac: folio 3v of the Matrícula de Tributos.
FIGURE 7. The Tlaxcalans present Cortés with gifts: Cell 7 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 8. Nopal cactus infested with cochineal parasites. The white secretions protect the insects, who have burrowed into the nopal’s flesh. Oaxaca, April 2006. Photo by Byron Hamann.
As discussed in the “Landscapes: Water, Mountain” Nahua tutorial, the basic unit of central Mexican political organization was the altepetl, a kind of city-state.7 Socially, the inhabitants of each altepetl were either commoners (macehualtin) or nobles (pipiltin).8 Commoners worked as agricultural laborers and craft specialists, providing food, goods, and labor to the nobility through tribute (tequitl). At the summit of this social hierarchy was the tlatoani, the king or ruler. The word tlatoani means “speaker”—a reminder of the important role performance and oratory had in the expression of Mesoamerican rulership (see the Introduction to the Codex Nuttall Ã’udzavui tutorial).9
Much in the same way that the kings of England and France wore crowns, Central Mexican tlatoani wore special headdresses to indicate their status. Tlatoani in the Valley of Mexico wore pointed diadems encrusted with turquoise mosaic. In Tlaxcala, tlatoani wore twisted red and white headbands (although by the middle of the sixteenth century this headband was being worn by Tlaxcalan elites in general).10 These two traditions of royal headgear collide in Cell 11 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, where the Aztec emperor Moctezuma is shown wearing a Tlaxcalan twisted headband. The Tlaxcalan artists of this image probably felt that this was the clearest way to mark Moctezuma’s rank in the eyes of the Lienzo’s Tlaxcalan audience (Figure 3). In contrast, the Central Mexican tlatoque (the plural form of the word tlatoani) shown on folio 2r of the Matrícula de Tributos (two from Tenochtitlan, two from Tlatelolco) wear traditional central Mexican pointed diadems (their original blue paint now faded away; Figure 4).
Tlatoque were selected (or “elected”) by an altepetl’s council of elder nobles. As a result, rulership did not necessarily pass from father to son. However, tlatoque were always noble men, and usually closely related. For example, the two tlatoani of Tenochtitlan depicted in the Matrícula de Tributos are grandfather and grandson: Itzcoatl (reigned 1427-1440—ruler when the Triple Alliance was created) and Ahuitzotl (reigned 1469-1481). But the throne did not pass through Itzcoatl’s son. When Itzcoatl died in 1440, he was succeeded by a half-nephew, Moctezuma I (son of Itzcoatl’s half-brother). In turn, Moctezuma I was succeeded by three of his grandsons (who were also grandsons of Itzcoatl). First was Axayacatl, depicted in the Matrícula, and then his brothers Tizoc (reigned 1481-1486) and Ahuitzotl (reigned 1486-1502). Ahuitzotl was then succeeded by his nephew Moctezuma II (son of Ahuitzotl’s brother Axayacatl).
Succession in Tlaxcala was even more complicated, because Tlaxcala was a “complex altepetl”—that is, it was a polity formed through the alliance of four once-separate altepetl. These four main altepetl are depicted in the main scene at the top of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Figure 5): Tepeticpac (with a Canid Deity battle standard), Ocotelolco (with an eagle battle standard), Tizatlan (with a heron battle standard), and Quiahuiztlan (with a Quetzal Feather battle standard). Rulership of Tlaxcala as a whole passed from one component altepetl to another, in sequence, from generation to generation. So, at the start of the prehispanic cycle, a tlatoani would be chosen from Tepeticpac. On his death, a new tlatoani would be chosen from Ocotelolco, followed by a tlatoani from Tizatlan, then from Quiahuiztlan, and, finally, from Tepeticpac again.11
Relations between altepetl—and between the noble families that ruled different altepetl—took a number of forms. Warfare is one example. The Aztec Empire was created through the conquest of dozens of once-independent altepetl. Even after an altepetl was incorporated into the empire, its people might rise up in rebellion, triggering further military action. However, some altepetl—such as Tlaxcala—managed to remain independent, and were targets of periodic attacks by Aztec warriors. These skirmishes between the Aztec Empire and independent altepetl were referred to in a few sixteenth century documents as “Flowery Wars” (xochiyaoyotl), a term whose meaning is much debated. Were these Flowery Wars ritual skirmishes for the purpose of taking sacrificial captives, or for military training? Or were they concerted attempts by the Aztecs to actually conquer and incorporate independent polities?12
Despite the fame of Aztec imperialism, it is important to stress that warfare between altepetl did not begin with the Aztecs. In the Valley of Morelos, for example, the altepetl of Cuauhnahuac (centered in what is now the city of Cuernavaca) began its own campaign of military expansion in the 1420s. Cuauhnahuac took control of a number of altepetl in western Morelos, including Cuexcomate (a place we discuss below). A decade later, in 1438, the region was itself conquered and incorporated into the Aztec Empire. Thus the conquerors of Cuauhnahuac were themselves vanquished (Figure 6).13
But warfare was not the only form of interaction between altepetl. Nobles from different elite families created regional social ties by non-violent means as well: through gift-giving, feasting, and marriage.14 These prehispanic traditions of alliance-building continued to be important when the Europeans arrived. According to the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, when Cortés and his soldiers came to Tlaxcala, they (and their horses) were showered with gifts. These included foodstuffs above all (including hay for the horses), but also—as shown in Cell 7 of the Lienzo—jewelry, sumptuous textiles, and women (Figure 7). According to alphabetic sources, some of the women “gifted” to Cortés were the daughters of Tlaxcalan noble families. Tlaxcala’s rulers, in other words, were trying to create relations of kinship with the foreign invaders, thereby incorporating Cortés and his men—in the style of prehispanic alliance-building—into social networks involving rights, responsibilities, and mutual support.15
Traditions involving elite alliances were not the only aspects of prehispanic rulership to continue in the colonial period. Central Mexican altepetl quickly adopted and adapted European-style city councils, or cabildos. In Iberia, these were centered around a group of twelve councilmen (regidores), overseen by a crown-appointed representative, the corregidor (ideally someone from outside the town). Completing these Iberian city councils were two alcaldes, or judges. In colonial New Spain, city councils usually included twelve councilmen as well, but instead of a corregidor they were overseen by a governor (gobernador), a man who in many cases was also the local tlatoani . In Tlaxcala, gobernadores served two-year terms, and were chosen (like tlatoani) in sequence from each of the four component altepetl of Tlaxcala. In addition, four alcaldes were chosen from each of the four main altepetl of Tlaxcala, as were four permanent regidores. Another twelve regidores were chosen annually: each altepetl would contribute three (for a total of twelve non-permanent regidores). Similar adaptations and adjustments of Iberian cabildo models are documented from other Central Mexican altepetl. In other words, the prehispanic nobility continued to rule in colonial New Spain, making use of imported European institutions that they adapted according to Mesoamerican ideas about rulership and order. 
Notaries also played important roles in town government (as they did in Iberia as well), writing up official document and taking minutes of cabildo meetings. (In Tlaxcala, these were held twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays).17 Amazingly, the town council records for Tlaxcala have survived from 1547 to 1567.18 Written in hundreds of pages of alphabetic Nahuatl, these cabildo minutes provide an invaluable record of indigenous life in early colonial New Spain. They include complaints by Tlaxcalan nobles in 1553 that the raising of cochineal—a valuable red dye made from the bodies of insect parasites—had allowed commoners, and women, to elevate their social status. These supposedly-upstart cochineal farmers were able to buy pulque and chocolate and sponsor feasts, thus widening their social networks through the exchange of food and drink (Figure 8).19 A few years later, minutes describe preparations for the celebration of Corpus Christi in 1555, as well as the selection of the Quiahuiztlan tlatoani in 1560.20 Most importantly for Mesolore, they record a decision in June of 1552 to prepare a pictorial account of Tlaxcalan participation in the conquest of Mexico. This is probably a reference to the commissioning of what would become the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.21
7 Lockhart 1992, 14-58.
8 Lockhart 1992, 95-110.
9 Lockhart 1992, 95.
10 Nicholson 1967; Kranz 2001, 213-214; Cosentino 2002, 191-193, 211-212.
11 Note that the relative ranking of these altepetl shifted in the colonial period, so that Ocotelolco became the highest ranked altepetl and symbolic “beginning” to the cycles of succession. However, the order of succession remained the same, so this shift in rank took place within a larger structure of continuity; Lockhart 1992, 21-23; see also Gibson 1952: 1-15 for a discussion of whether prehispanic Tlaxcala did indeed only have four main altepetl.
12 Hicks 1979; Isaac 1983; Clendinnen 1991, 34; Smith 2003: 171.
13 Smith 1986, 78.
14 Smith 1986.
15 Kranz 2001, 176-182.
16 Gibson 1952, 103-115; Lockhart 1992, 35-40.
17 Gibson 1952, 114.
18 One folio also covers the year 1627 (Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986: x).
19 Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986: 79-84.
20 Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986, 94, 108.
21 Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986, 51.